Directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from the children’s novel by Michael Morpugo War Horse is an epic, visually stunning and genuinely moving film. The movie follows the trials and tribulations of the titular horse Joey.
Beginning on the eve of World War I the feisty young Joey is bought by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) as a plough house to work on his failing farm. It’s a foolish purchase, Joey is a thoroughbred and ill suited for the sort of heavy farm work that Ted needs him for but he allows himself to be caught in a bidding war with his landlord (David Thewlis in an effectively unpleasant turn) which results in him paying over the odds for the horse. His wife (Emily Watson) despairs but his son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) is delighted and he and Joey fast become friends with Joey surprising everyone with his strength and speed. But when the family fall on hard times Ted has no choice but to sell Joey to the army (represented by Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nichols) who promises that when the war is over Joey will be returned to Albert’s care.
We follow Joey’s adventures as he moves from owner to owner - a pair of frightened German brothers, an ailing young French girl, a kindly German soldier while all the while fighting to be reunited with Albert who has signed up as a soldier to search for him.
War Horse is a visually stunning movie. Spielberg and director of photography Janusz Kaminski have between them produced a film packed with genuinely beautiful images. A surprise cavalry attack through long grass, the air filled with dancing golden seeds, the blades of a windmill at night obscuring terrible events unfurling below, snow falling in No Man’s Land, the terribly haunting image of rider-less panicked horses galloping into frame. The battle sequences are exhilarating and emotionally devastating to watch. The cavalry on their horses, looking terribly dashing in their neat uniforms, scything down anything in their way as they attack a German encampment. Albert’s charge towards the German front is a vision of sheer hell on earth as the bullets and grenades liberally rain down from the sky and explosions knock men from their feet and you back into your seat with the sheer power of it. Joey’s panicked dash across No Man’s Land is almost unbearable to watch. My friend and I were covering our faces in sheer horror and I’m not even that much of an animal lover. Don’t let the arguably over saccharine trailer fool you. Whilst this is a war movie that children can watch the horror of war isn’t sanitised at all. There may not be much blood or body parts flying around but the battle sequences are still utterly gut wrenching. It would be a hardened soul indeed that wasn’t left a little shaken by them.
Spielberg wrangles extraordinary “performances” from the horses. Joey (and Topthorn) are incredibly expressive beautiful horses. Anyone who may be concerned about the prospect of watching a 2 hour plus movie “about a horse” need not worry as you find yourself rooting for poor Joey immediately willing him to find his Albert again.
The film is very much an ensemble piece. Tom Hiddleston is decent, couragous and kind as Captain Nichols - the movie very much comes to life once the cavalry march into town. Benedict Cumberbatch as the plummy toned Major Stewart equally makes the very most of his limited screentime. His brief scenes are a delight - whether bantering wryly with Captain Nichols as he challenges him to beat his horse in a mock cavalry charge or exchanging asides with his sergeant. He also gets the most rousing speech of the film as he acknowledges his men’s fear on the eve of battle and encourages them to do their duty and “Be Brave.” The emotional impact of the first battle sequence entirely rests on the expressions on Cumberbatch and Hiddleston’s faces and they carry the moment absolutely beautifully.
Elsewhere Emily Watson is great as Albert’s despairing mother and Toby Kebbell very personable as the Geordie soldier who meets with his German counterpart in a wonderful scene which recalls the legendary Christmas Day football match played in No Man’s Land. Jeremy Irvine is sweet and gentle as Albert. His character is rather earnest and the portrayal could have lapsed into parody but Irvine ensures that never happens - Albert may be a simper, gentler character than we often get in these more cynical times but you never find yourself laughing at him.
In fact the movie as a whole is sort of gloriously and unashamedly old-fashioned. It’s the sort of wholesome film that they just really don’t make any more. And it’s all the better for it.
The film isn’t perfect. The opening sequence of Joey being bought and trained by the Narracotts is overlong and perilously twee (although mention must be made of the scene stealing comedy goose who randomly appears in the opening segment and brightens up proceedings whenever he does). The ensemble nature of the piece means that you’ve only just become hooked on that character’s plot thread before the narrative moves you on elsewhere. I especially would have liked to seen more of Captain Nichols and Major Stewart, the two young German brothers (delicate heartrending performances from both), Albert in the trenches and Toby Kebbell’s humane and funny Geordie soldier. The score is also a little intrusive at times - the performances and the visuals are powerful enough that the score doesn’t have to hammer home every emotional beat.
But niggles aside War Horse is a gorgeously shot film featuring many fine performances. It effortlessly balances humour and pathos and the battle sequences are extraordinary - exhilarating and harrowing in equal measure. The film is a stunning achievement and deserves to do very well indeed.
War Horse is released in the UK on 13 January 2012 and in the US on Christmas Day.